Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.10

Giuliano Bonfante, The Origin of the Romance Languages: Stages in the Development of Latin. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften 100.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1999.  Pp. xxxiv, 154.  ISBN 3-8253-0583-X.  

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, The University of Pennsylvania
Word count: 1029 words

We used to know a lot about the history of the Latin language. It began in humble Latium, spread through the world, but divided between "Latin" and "Vulgar Latin" -- the latter being what happened when ordinary people were allowed to speak and even try to write the pure essence of the language. Eventually, such was the decline of civilization, Vulgar Latin proved incapable of fidelity to Latin and so fell away, around the reign of Charlemagne, to pursue a skulking existence -- an existence that scarcely dared write its name for centuries -- as the nascent Romance languages. Latin, meanwhile, marched serenely on through middle age and into modernity, ending as a language that was (in the words of J.W. Mackail) "not dead: it has merely ceased to be mortal".

That story had been written by historians, not by linguists. The rise of Romance philology in the nineteenth and twentieth century gradually told a better tale. The book under review here memorializes and at the same time recalls to life an epoch of scholarly debate and achievement that risks falling into oblivion. It reaches the light of day through the pietas of a distinguished scholar, herself a linguist of standing, seeing through the press a book by her own father, a book written over fifty years ago. It was written in Princeton in the 1940s by an exile, now long since restored to his homeland and still flourishing at a great age. It has been published almost as-was, with very light revision, a bibliography of the author, and a half-page of relevant scholarly publications by others since World War II. Brief prefaces by father and daughter evoke the atmosphere of the time and a sense of satisfaction in bringing the book back to life today.

Bonfante tells the story of Latin and Romance in a particular and not uncontroversial way. He believes he can show that the distinctive characteristics of regional forms of Romance can be attributed to the relative antiquity of their homeland's moment of subjection to Rome. In other words, he argues that a conquered province would acquire Latin in the form in use at the date of conquest and, on the assumption that proto-Romance differentiation began immediately, preserve in its Romance forms the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the Latin of that date. Thus Sardinian reflects the most archaic form of Latin known to us, Ibero-Romance something younger, and Gallo-Romance something younger still. Italian, then, represents the youngest Latin of all, because in the homeland there was never the moment of separation anxiety and fossilization.

The argument is concisely set out in an opening chapter and then proceeds by detailed examination of select linguistic phenomena in two parts: first, to show the relative antiquity of the imputed Latin substrate to the non-Italic Romance languages, and second, to show the "innovating character of Italy". It makes surprisingly lively reading, for an analyzed catalogue of linguistic phenomena. One suspects from the style of the footnotes that the author played his share of football in Italy long ago and his mind did not forget the moves.

The argument is formally sound and well carried forth. The devil is inevitably in the myriad details of report and interpretation. That the book has been published essentially unrevised and without updating means that the detailed discussions must be read with great care. On balance, the orthodox center of linguistic research since the 1940s has moved toward Bonfante's view, while literary and historical studies remain firmly fixed in Latin-centric readings of the imperial and late antique periods, still in their way enthralled by Roman imperialism. Bonfante is surely right that languages change constantly and that once differentiated by province, the local "Latin" would immediately begin to develop distinctive characteristics antecedent to the eventual identification of the local Romance inheritor.

The defect of the book is in its reach and range. As a working assumption, it makes sense to identify the date of arrival of Latin with the date of conquest. But the social history of individual provinces was complex and within formal provinces local histories will have been vehemently thrown about in ways we scarcely surmise. Recent work on "Romanization" (such as that of Greg Woolf in Gaul, to take an example from the Latin world) has begun to flesh out social history from local sources (especially archaeological remains) rather than start from a narrative of conquest and resistance supplied from Rome. Each province and virtually each neighborhood will have had a story to tell far more complex and nuanced than the limited evidence can document. Bonfante's book represents an age when linguists impatiently thought they could rival historians (and some, like H.F. Muller and Mario Pei, imprudently wrote books doing just that, books now deservedly neglected). Historians have in their way taken a long time to catch up, but this book's long-delayed appearance and its modesty should be welcome reminders of an integration of studies that is still possible, and eminently desirable.

A better history than the parody I gave at the outset is one that Bonfante points towards, one that contemporary philologists would tell. The true history of "Latin" is in its dissemination and diversification through the Roman world and its long and powerful life in Romance forms. That history is remarkable for the optimism it can give us about linguistic forms in our own time. Left to its own devices, Latin, the language of the conquerors, imperceptibly became the language of the subject nations, the several of which claimed it for their own, shaped it, and eventually gave it the dignity of a written avatar (ut ita dicam). English is a language spoken by (on a conservative estimate) half again as many people as can call it their native language. In its spread, this looks like dominion, but in the long run it is opportunity.

Seen against that backdrop of evolution and devolution, the survival of "Latin", and in particular its rebirth as "medieval Latin" (a development compellingly interpreted by Roger Wright in his 1982 Late Latin and Early Romance), is the story of an imperial, ecclesiastical, and eventually (most etiolated of all) academic fossil. Latin, the undead language.

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